From the Salt Mines: The Big Bang Theory

From the Salt Mines: A new occasional series in which I will talk about the things that stick under my craw for various reasons. Future plans include other TV series, several books, and at least one video game. I have a lot of feelings, and not all of them are pleasant ones.


You may have noticed, if you’re the kind to read contributor bios, that I list The Big Bang Theory as one of my dislikes. I’d put it on par with the ending of Mass Effect 3, but if I’m honest, the show is even worse than whatever mess Shepard dealt with at the end of that trilogy, mainly because it’s still happening.

There’s a blanket spoiler warning for this post, especially for the first four seasons.

So why does The Big Bang Theory make me salty? I watched the show. For at least four seasons, I sat with my parents on their couch and watched every single episode. Did I laugh? Sure. Every now and then they hit on a genuinely funny moment. For example, season 2 episode 11, “I can grow my own Leonard Nimoy.” 

Even after I stopped watching, I’ve properly researched at least the first half of the mind-boggling ten seasons that show has been on air. (And I’m seeing on IMDB that it’s already been contracted for an 11th and 12th season, so clearly God has abandoned me.)

I’ve watched enough to know that when one of my family members says he’s a Sheldon, I recognize he hasn’t done any of the soul-searching necessary to reconcile how that character is treated by every single other person on the show. And he definitely hasn’t realized what a terrible person Sheldon has become as the series goes on.

I have self-identified as a nerd my entire life. I’ve always been more interested in reading than talking to other people. I’ve watched every single episode of the The X-Files several times. I saw all of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies in theaters. I’m a Browncoat, a member of the Rebellion, a Whovian, Savior of the Citadel and Pathfinder to the Andromeda Galaxy, and a newly minted level 13 Elven/Daywalker ranger in my biweekly D&D game.

So what, exactly, bothers me about about this show full of nerds? It isn’t written for me. It isn’t written for nerds at all.

The audience isn’t laughing with Sheldon and his friends, they’re laughing at Sheldon and his friends, most often through the lens of the show’s lazily characterized audience foil, Penny. You can tell because none of the jokes are inside jokes, there’s no nuance to the nerdiness, and most of the laughs are Penny’s.

It falls back (or at least, it did in the early days) on out-dated (and in Raj’s case, frankly racist) stereotypes for laughs. Raj’s Indian heritage is the butt of many, many jokes. Need an example? How about the time we met Sheldon’s Texan mother, who said a healer at her church might be willing to take a shot at whatever Third World demon is rolling around inside of Raj that leaves him unable to talk to women?

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See guys, it’s funny because all Texans are Christians and all Christians are racist.

Need a laugh? Throw in Howard’s shrieky Jewish mother who always wants to feed him and is creepily, unnecessarily involved in his personal life. (And for bonus laughs, him shrieking right back at her.) 

Want a laugh that doesn’t have to do with the nerds? Penny is an out-of-work actress from a flyover state that’s also kind of dumb. Also she’s really poor but somehow affords a one bedroom apartment in the same building as Sheldon and Leonard, who apparently can’t afford to live on their own.

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This is a very plausibly sized apartment in LA for someone who works at the Cheesecake Factory. It has ROOMS.

There’s also the casual way this show condones rape culture. Sure they’re all happily paired off now (although Sheldon and Amy could present their own case study of problematic roles), but please harken back to the early days of Howard and Raj, where Howard hit on anything with boobs that stood still long enough.

And remind yourself of the way he did it. Remind yourself that it in “The Killer Robot Instability” Howard’s creepy advances made Penny so uncomfortable she blew up about it, and then had to apologize to Howard after. Remind yourself that those creepy advances were literally his entire schtick in the early seasons, along with the aforementioned stereotypical, nosy, Jewish mother. 

Remember this episode? It’s season two, episode seven, “The Panty Piñata Polarization.” Raj and Howard used spy helicopters to get pictures of the America’s Next Top Model ladies sunbathing topless on what they believed was their private roof, and then later in the episode Howard and Raj pretended to be cable repairmen and actually entered the house. Somehow, all of this was punctuated with a laugh track because sexual predation is hilarious.

I can’t help but contrast Big Bang Theory with Community, a show that is actually about nerds and for nerds, where the joke isn’t how nerdy the nerds are. That show treated its socially awkward, probably-on-the-spectrum nerd with gentleness and respect, and he was on the inside of all of the jokes. You probably have your own shows for nerds by nerds, and I’d love to hear about them.

It’s that lack of self awareness and connection with the audience it pretends to be for that, bottom line, makes The Big Bang Theory so popular with the masses. It’s masterful at disguising what it really is: a show about a bunch of nerds for people to laugh at and feel better about themselves.


Screencaps in this post come from kissthemgoodbye.net

10 Comments

  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier May 26, 2017 at 8:53 am

    Out of curiosity, have you seen The Guild? If so, I’d be very curious to see how you feel about it!

    Reply
    • Merrin May 26, 2017 at 10:21 am

      I’ve watched the first few episodes and liked them but also got REALLY DISTRACTED by something shiny and haven’t gone back. I should.

      Reply
  • Lane Robins May 26, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    I’m not a big sitcom watcher: I think they’re predicated too much on being mean and horrible to each other. But this is one I’ve steered clear from, from the beginning. Glad to know my fears weren’t unfounded.

    Reply
    • Shara White May 26, 2017 at 12:35 pm

      There are some good sitcoms out there you should watch: Brooklyn Nine-Nine is at the top of my list currently!

      Reply
  • Shara White May 26, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    I absolutely adored the napkin/Leonard Nimoy scene!

    I got much further in this show than you did, Merrin, and I didn’t stop because of any of the reasons you mentioned, but rather we cut the cord and it was too annoying to try and watch this show live (we have an high-def antenna).

    That said, as the later seasons progressed, it’s hard to believe that these guys, who I did consider to be the absolute stereotype of the “basement nerd unleashed,” all end up with these amazingly hot, smart women. It’s like…. reinforcing the some of the worst Nice Guy stereotypes/myths: that if you stick around long enough, no matter what you do or how bad you act, you’ll eventually get THE girl, and she’ll be hot to boot.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the show (and maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but I also haven’t watched it in years), but there was a part of me that was highly aware of how problematic it was. I think I could accept these characters from the standpoint that yes, I think there are men out there who really do act like this (and who are nerds), but the fact that in many ways they could be rewarded for bad behavior, well…. that’s not so great.

    There was a great moment where Sheldon gets to teach Leonard what it’s like inside his head, and I thought it was pretty poignant. It was the Itchy Sweater episode. 🙂

    Reply
  • Michael M Jones May 26, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    Apart from all of the usual complaints about this show, I have some other things that have irked me more and more as time goes on. I’ve watched it for pretty much the entire run, and I just can’t buy into the concept that these are -friends-. Even for sitcom standards, they act so mean towards each other that it’s hard to think they’d have stayed together as a group this long. Everyone is a jerk towards everyone else… and I’m honestly shocked that Sheldon hasn’t ended up in a shallow grave in the backyard or the victim of a “lab accident.” There’s friendly teasing, and then there’s the unrelenting stream of misery and hateful jabs which pass for humor in this show.

    On the bright side, Howard went from being a skeevy sexual predator to a family man (or man-child), while Raj… er, okay, Raj is worse than ever.

    I dunno, this show has a lot of problems, and yet it’s sometimes hard to look away.

    Reply
  • Ron Edison May 27, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    We watched the first three seasons and then tuned out, although we have the DVDs through season six. Too many sitcoms degenerate into meanness and showdowns of essentially standup comedy routines. The last sitcom we enjoyed was BETTER OFF TED which barely made it through two seasons. I liked COMMUNITY much more. although the Chevy Chase character was obnoxious.

    Reply
    • Merrin June 7, 2017 at 9:01 am

      The only consolation on the Chevy Chase character is that Chevy Chase ALSO hated him, but that makes me wonder why they bothered at all.

      Reply
  • Carey Ballard May 29, 2017 at 11:18 am

    I liked when Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch came on board because I thought it would be more balanced in terms of characters–Penny was alone with 4 nerds for too long. And it is more balanced, but the comedy devolved quite a bit. The “normal” things the women do (girls’ weekends, etc) only serve as the counterpoint to the guys’ activities which are NOT NORMAL. I think that’s a pretty stupid trope–D&D is a perfectly acceptable way to spend a weekend!–and one that’s really overused in this series. As for relationships, Howard and Bernadette evened out (except for the aforementioned meanness to Raj) but there is no way in hell I’d be in an abusive relationship with Sheldon this long. Don’t get me started on Penny and Leonard, or Amy’s possible bi- or pansexuality played off for laughs. Sigh.

    Reply
    • Shara White May 29, 2017 at 8:00 pm

      I stopped watching….. hmmmm… it was shortly after Sheldon and Amy had sex for the first time. I didn’t stop watching because of any specific issue with the show itself, only because I didn’t want to HAVE to watch it live and I didn’t want to pay CBS for their specific streaming rights (would it have KILLED them to get on Hulu, hmmm????). But I’m curious to know where Amy and Sheldon have ended up, let alone Penny and Leonard.

      Reply

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